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Coalition sues in bid to block MTA fare hikes

Times Staff Writer

Three groups representing local public transit riders and conservation interests united Tuesday in an effort to require the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to hold off on fare increases until their environmental effects can be measured.

A coalition of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Bus Riders Union and the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a think tank, filed suit seeking to require the MTA to produce an environmental impact report and filed a separate injunction request to block fare increases until the suit is resolved.

The coalition said the MTA’s increased prices would force more public transit passengers -- mostly the working poor -- into cars, causing pollution levels to surge.

In anticipation of a $1.8-billion deficit over the next decade, MTA directors authorized the fare hike May 24. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had sought a smaller increase.

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Effective Sunday, the monthly pass for buses and trains is to increase from $52 to $62, the day pass from $3 to $5 and the monthly pass for seniors from $12 to $14. Over the next two years, the single-ride fare is to climb from $1.25 to $1.50.

Before the May board meeting, the coalition sent a comment letter warning the MTA of the possibility of a lawsuit opposing fare hikes, said Francisca Porchas, a Bus Riders Union organizer.

A judge is expected to rule on the injunction today.

In a similar situation in 1994, the MTA was sued by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Bus Riders Union over proposed fare hikes and the elimination of the monthly bus pass.

The agency ultimately signed a consent decree agreeing not to raise fares for several years.

This time, the coalition alleges that the MTA is violating the California Environmental Quality Act of 1970, which requires local government agencies to measure environmental effects before proceeding with development plans. The law allows agencies to restructure fares without such a report to meet operating costs.

Porchas believes the MTA plans to use the funds for construction of rail projects.

“It was a lot of what [MTA Chief Executive] Roger Snoble stated during the actual fare increase process, a lot of, ‘Oh, some rail projects are going to have to wait if we don’t get the money,’ ” Porchas said.

“To us, it looks like they’re going to free up money to build capital projects,” she said.

But MTA spokesman Marc Littman said none of the money from the fare increase was headed to construction plans.

With rider fees covering 24% of the bus and rail systems’ operations costs, and subsidies filling the rest, even revenue from the price boost would not be enough to balance the MTA’s budget, Littman said.

“To make this argument that we’re going to have more money than we need is not true,” Littman said. “The point is, every penny of the fare increase is going into operations, just to maintain the current system.”

But if the fares are increased, coalition representatives said, nearly 100,000 bus riders -- with an annual median income of $12,000 -- could be priced out of public transportation; 2,800 of those, they said, would use cars.

For each 10% increase in fares, public transportation ridership drops 3% to 4%, Porchas said, citing a statistic that Littman said was outdated.

“These people are still going to need to get to school, work, church, etc.,” said David Pettit, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Southern California Air Program. “And in some cases it might be financially worth it to go buy some piece of junk car. And they’re going to tend to be older and more polluting cars.”

The influx of drivers would further choke Southern California streets, plaintiffs said, and intensify respiratory disease, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and other environmental and health woes.

“It’s something the MTA, in our view, ought to study,” Pettit said. “They can study it and say it’s trivial, but they wouldn’t know that unless they look at it.”

The MTA has refused to conduct an environmental impact report because, Littman said, state law exempts it from the resource-intensive process.

“These reports take a lot of time. They can go on for years, they’re very expensive and, since we couldn’t even sustain a growing operating deficit, it’s untenable,” Littman said. “We’ve never had to do that in the past. And in the meantime, we had a crisis.”

The MTA takes in less than $3 million a year from fares, said Littman, who argued that the agency’s rates are reasonable considering its recent expansions in service.

And although the MTA expects to lose riders from the price hikes, it expects to win them back through increased service, Littman said, pointing to the costs of driving.

“Even with the fare increase, the average boarding is only 66 cents,” Littman said. “But if you factor in the costs of a car -- the cost of a gallon of gas alone, depreciation, parking, maintenance -- there’s no comparison, Metro’s still a bargain.”

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

New MTA fares are to take effect Sunday

Under a series of fare increases approved in May, bus and rail passengers will be charged significantly more, effective

MTA fares

*--* Senior Senior Daily Weekly Monthly monthly Cash cash* pass pass pass pass Current $1.25 na $3.00 $14.00 $52.00 $12.00 New July 1, 2007 1.25 0.25 5.00 17.00 62.00 14.00 July 1, 2009 1.50 0.30 6.00 20.00 75.00 17.00

*--*

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* Discount cash fare for seniors and the disabled during non-peak hours Source: Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Los Angeles Times


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